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Colin's Class: Peer Led Class by Craig Grad Educates and Empowers New Patients

September 05, 2017

Craig Hospital has changed quite a bit in the twelve years since Colin Heffern was an inpatient. There are new therapy gyms and equipment, patient rooms, and faces.

Colin has changed too. He was a 19-year-old college freshman, paralyzed from the neck down when he first entered the halls of Craig. Now he’s sharing his experience as a 31-year-old living with high-level tetraplegia with newly injured patients and their families.

Every other Friday, Colin leads “Colin’s Class” at Craig, a peer class for patients with high-level injuries. He has a dry, witty sense of humor and is open and honest.

“It really bothers me when I see people with more function than me and they’re more dependent on others. I hope this class starts new patients on the journey or the path towards the independence and activities that reengage them in the community. It’s one way I can help people along,” says Colin.

Colin currently works as a full-time landscape architect for the National Park Service. He's independent, has a social life, and volunteers. He drives a sip-and-puff wheelchair better than many people who use hand controls. However, it can still be hard work and is daunting at times. Colin shares both his challenges and successes with newly injured patients.

“Through his experience, Colin is able to provide the perspective of someone who has been through the Craig program and adapted what he learned to meet his needs,” says Craig Physical Therapist Joe Fangman, who assists with Colin's Class.

When he first returned home to Cheyenne, Wyoming after rehab in 2005, Colin says he felt isolated. The first 6 months at home were the hardest. "You leave the comfortable confines of Craig and return to a place where you once were independent and confident, only to find that you are now mostly dependent on others and the only wheelchair-user around."

He decided to return to school at Colorado State University (CSU) to pursue his bachelors of science in landscape architecture, the same subject he was studying prior to his injury. CSU is 45 miles away from his home. His return to school and a subject heavily reliant on the use of one's hands required prior planning, assistance from family and old and new friends, and existing and new technologies.

Colin went on to earn a bachelor's degree in Landscape Architecture from CSU in 2010 and master' s degrees in Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning from the University of Southern California in 2013.

To his class, Colin serves as an example of how to take educated risks, ask for help when needed and instruct those assisting, and share experiences and tips learned with others. He talks about hiring and training caregivers, returning to work and school, travel, home modification, and the ins and outs of accessibility. He also answers questions from patients and family members.

"His class definitely helped in the way that it showed that being a high-level quadriplegic doesn't limit you from traveling, working, camping, or going back to school," says Jason Sitruk, a patient in Colin's class.

Colin says he saw a need and wanted to help. He recognized that many people living with spinal cord injuries were limited in their ability to interact with the wider world.

He says moving forward he hopes Colin's Class will have more peer involvement to include different perspectives and ideas on how to tackle obstacles.

Colin's Tips for Regaining Your Independence

  • Don't wait for somebody else to do it - jump right in!
  • Take responsibility for your life and your actions. You must determine how you will live from this point forward.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. You likely do not need somebody with you all the time. Ask a neighbor, coworker, or stranger for help with simple tasks.
  • Be patient. It is not a race to independence, but rather a slow and steady journey of small improvements and new skills.
  • Stay positive and treat those assisting you with respect - it makes it a lot easier on everyone.

At Work

As a landscape architect for the National Park Service, Colin works on a variety of projects, some involving site planning and others focused on accessibility. Some of the accessibility work includes assessing park facilities and and programs to ensure they meet current codes and policies.

“We work with park staff to identify accessibility barriers and develop realistic solutions for removing those barriers and improving opportunities for visitors with disabilities,” says Colin. "The self-evaluation and transition plan identify physical and programmatic barriers to accessibility and are required for federal agencies and facilities by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973."

Upon arriving to the park sites, his team will measure and inspect a variety of areas that include: bathrooms, parking spots, trashcans, picnic tables, ramps, curbs, parking signage, and many others. After their assessment and inspection Colin drafts up documents determining what the barriers are and solutions to remove them.

“What’s nice is we help develop solutions that parks can realistically accomplish in order to remove those barriers. Those projects are fun because we get to see a lot of different areas in the park.”

Colin takes around six work trips each year. For many people with disabilities, traveling can be overwhelming and accessibility isn't always guaranteed. Colin says preparation and time management are crucial to traveling safely and successfully. He share his challenges and tactics with inpatients in his class.

"It is so impressive that Colin does not let his injury limit his travels. He is very confident in instructing his caregivers and adapting to different situations, and he has taught us a new technique for packing a power chair to decrease the risk of damage," says Joe Fangman, a physical therapist at Craig.